Study finds link between sugar signaling, regulation of oil production in plants

Study finds link between sugar signaling, regulation of oil production in plants

Even plants have to live on an energy budget. While they're known for converting solar energy into chemical energy in the form of sugars, plants have sophisticated biochemical mechanisms for regulating how they spend that energy. Making oils costs a lot.

By exploring the details of this delicate energy balance, a group of scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory has identified a previously unknown link between a protein that maintains plant sugar balance and one that turns on oil production. The biochemical detective work, described in the journal The Plant Cell, points to new strategies for tapping into the energy plants capture from the sun to produce oil-based biofuels and other biomaterials.

"This study shows how understanding fundamental biochemistry and cell biology can potentially be useful for increasing the production of desired plant products," said Brookhaven Lab senior biochemist John Shanklin, who led the research. "It's an example of basic science pointing to ways to improve crop plants to produce more of what we want."

Shanklin's team, which includes postdoctoral fellow Zhiyang Zhai and research associate Hui Liu, explored the roles of genetic and biochemical factors that might provide a link between plants' sugar levels and oil production.

"We know a lot about sugar homeostasis -- the mechanisms that keep sugar at the right level," Shanklin said. "One of the key players is a protein that controls sugar levels much like a thermostat controls temperatures."

When sugar is low, this protein, known as KIN10, adds a phosphate group to as many as a thousand different proteins to change their functions in ways that ultimately increase sugar levels, Shanklin explained. As sugar levels increase KIN10's ability to phosphorylate proteins becomes inhibited, slowing down sugar production.



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